In the 1994 film about Forrest Gump, he says: “… life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” In politics or business, the number of chocolate pieces in the box is finite and consuming them with partners is a zero-sum game. In science, however, the euphoria of eating chocolate is metaphorically equivalent to figuring-out nature, and doing so promotes new territories of knowledge, making the endeavor an infinite-sum game. In other words, a scientist’s life is worth living by thinking outside the box.
Upon my arrival in Zurich this week, I found a box of chocolates in my hotel room with a welcome note from the novelist and entrepreneur Rolf Dobelli, founder of the World.Minds community. The organization hosted its annual conference the following day, during which Rolf asked me questions about the search for extraterrestrial technological objects in front of an audience of 400 world leaders in science, politics and business. As a farm boy, I was humbled by the company of Norman and Elena Foster, Matt Ridley, and Jim and Laura Stavridis, who sat next to me at dinner. The conversations unraveled a common thread of highly accomplished individuals who are curious and creative in their efforts to make the world better.
The first day discussions on the US-China chip war and the Russia-Ukraine military war, implied that there is plenty of room for improvement regarding terrestrial geo-politics. Humanity would have been better served if the international race for technological progress triggered aspiration for excellence rather than mud-wrestling, and if nations chose cooperation on infinite-sum endeavors rather than confrontation in zero-sum territorial conflicts. However, the following conference day was far more uplifting. All speakers introduced disruptive ideas by speaking the truth under Chatham House Rule with no documented record. In the current era of misinformation, political correctness and polarization, it was refreshing to hear disruptive, innovative ideas based on truth telling. All in all, the exceptional forum assembled by Rolf was an artistic masterpiece. With no recording, it resembled Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony played only once in front of 400 people.
In my segment, I described the global history of Earth. It started with the early chemistry of microbial life in liquid water, which did not produce much atmospheric oxygen in the first half of life’s history. The history ended in recent years with many artificial rockets launched to space, not a trivial consequence of the initial chemical soup.
While astronomers plan to invest billions of federal dollars in the search for oxygen in exoplanetary atmospheres, there is no federal funding allocated to the search for extraterrestrial rockets from interstellar space. The first four interstellar objects were discovered serendipitously over the past decade, and three of them, IM1, IM2 and `Oumuamua, are unlike any space rocks from the solar system in terms of their material strength or shape. Could they be artificial in origin? The privately-funded Galileo Project aims to address this question by collecting new data.
Humanity might be inspired to do better in its geo-political ambitions by receiving a news brief from interstellar space in the form of an object manufactured by an extraterrestrial technological civilization. Our existential risk can be viewed as a race between extinction by environmental or technological wounds and the opportunity to learn precious survival skills from a smarter species which had more time to develop scientific knowledge. Learning from others would elevate our status in the interstellar geo-political competition.
But there is also a spiritual benefit. Finding an interstellar community could bring a meaning to our life in the cosmos. It could also unify religion with science if the extraterrestrial civilization is capable of creating artificial life or a baby universe in its laboratories.
After marrying my amazing wife, I learned that the most consequential choice in prolonging a prosperous life is who you partner with. Humanity will face this choice once it enters the interstellar dating scene. There might be many “chocolate pieces” to choose from in interstellar space.
My research team will be seeking the first of these pieces in a forthcoming expedition to the Pacific Ocean to retrieve relics of the first interstellar meteor, IM1. In a new paper that I wrote with my student, Amir Siraj, we localized the meteor site to a kilometer squared region, improving the search efficiency by a factor of a hundred relative to past data. The newly inferred localization implies that the material strength of the meteor was more than an order of magnitude tougher than all 271 solar system meteors in the CNEOS fireball catalog. In another new paper, I suggested that IM1 could be a piece from a broken Dyson sphere, a construction which requires exceptional material strength to survive gravitational deformation by its star’s gravity but could be broken by asteroid impacts.
Following my presentation, Admiral Jim Stavridis, former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO and former Dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy — where my wife received her PhD, concluded an inspiring lecture with a quote from Napoleon Bonaparte: “A leader is a dealer in hope.”
And speaking about hope, the day’s program concluded with a remarkable lecture by the artist and innovator Daan Roosegaarde about new ideas for illuminating natural environments. At the end of his presentation, Daan asked the audience in a real-time demonstration to guide his AI robot Dream Machine with content for an image of an inspiring future for humanity. An audience member raised his hand and instructed the robot to illustrate the “Swiss Matterhorn mountain at sunset with Avi Loeb and a friendly alien shaking hands.” The result is attached.
Here’s hoping for a handshake of this nature in my next visit to Switzerland. It holds the promise of adding brilliant minds from another world to the terrestrial membership of World.Minds.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Avi Loeb is the head of the Galileo Project, founding director of Harvard University’s — Black Hole Initiative, director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and the former chair of the astronomy department at Harvard University (2011–2020). He chairs the advisory board for the Breakthrough Starshot project, and is a former member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and a former chair of the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Academies. He is the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth” and a co-author of the textbook “Life in the Cosmos”, both published in 2021. His new book, titled “Interstellar”, is scheduled for publication in August 2023.